Federal prosecutors have charged an Ohio man they say is a neo-Nazi with the group White Lives Matters Ohio in connection with the firebombing of a church that planned to host a Drag Queen Story Hour. Authorities allege that the man participated in a protest in the state earlier in March, where armed white supremacists and other far-right extremists converged on a park where a drag queen was reading to children.
Aimenn Penny, 20, is charged with malicious use of explosives and possessing a destructive device.
According to the authorities, Penny allegedly attempted to burn down the Community Church of Chesterland in Chesterland, Ohio, on March 25 using Molotov cocktails.
The church had advertised hosting a Drag Queen Story Hour event on April 1, but Penny took offense and threw firebombs at the building in hopes of destroying it.
An affidavit filed in court states that Penny admitted to FBI agents that he intended to burn down the building to protect children from a perceived threat of drag queens.
Evidence against Penny includes location data from his cell phone that shows it was pinging off towers that coincided with pinpointed times and locations in connection with the case, according to officials.
The suspect also admitted to having Molotov cocktails and explosives, and he explained how he made them.
“Penny stated that night he became more and more angry after watching internet videos of news feeds and drag shows in France and decided to attack the church,” the affidavit reads.
A search of his residence turned up far-right extremist materials. The FBI found a handwritten manifesto that contained ideological statements, a Nazi flag, Nazi memorabilia, a White Lives Matter of Ohio t-shirt, a gas mask, blue painter’s tape, and gas cans.
Furthermore, the FBI investigation revealed that Penny had participated in an anti-drag protest that featured armed neo-Nazis, Patriot Front members, the Proud Boys, and other radical groups who protested a Drag Queen Story Hour at a public park in the Ohio town of Wadsworth near Akron on March 11.
Penny, prosecutors said, joined members of the group who carried flags with swastikas and yelled homophobic slurs at the drag queen event while wearing military-style gear and carrying a gun.
In October, he was interviewed by the police after distributing racist flyers and making claims that black people were the "problem" and that a civil war was imminent, according to the affidavit.
The church was initially critical of police when law enforcement failed to specify direct threats but seemed to imply that protecting the event was going to cost more than it was worth.
“When our event organizers and our pastor met with law enforcement officials to discuss the status of safety planning, officials couldn’t point to specific, direct threats – or wouldn’t share them,” church representatives wrote on Facebook.
Local law enforcement officials cited escalating tensions regarding drag queens and trans issues as concerns revolving around the event, according to church leaders’ account of a meeting held in advance of the event. Following the Nashville shooting, violence was feared. However, discussions about money dominated the meeting.
“Our organizers were asked how police officials could justify to their trustees such a large expenditure to keep the LGBTQ community safe. We ask, how can you justify denying an expenditure keeping the LGBTQ community safe? We understand these hate groups use financial terrorism as a tactic to force police agencies to take sides in situations like these; but choosing the side of the outside hate groups instead of members of this community they are sworn to protect sets a dangerous precedent for future targeted acts like these,” they wrote.
Whatever concern there was between law enforcement officials and church representatives, it had been resolved by the time the event took place Saturday. Church officials thanked law enforcement forces after the event.
“A huge THANK YOU is due to the Chardon and Chester Police Departments, as well as the Geauga County Sheriff’s office for their incredible and overwhelming support and protection of the local citizens attending the Drag Story Hour at the church today,” the church wrote on Facebook.
“The number of cruisers we hear were present, the ‘swat-style’ vans, the Chagrin Falls ‘tactical mobile unit’ which we were told was parked nearby…this overwhelming presence would have put caution in the mind of any group hoping to make an opportunistic threat,” the post said.
Saturday’s event at the church went off without a hitch, with only one protester clad in black showing up and sitting outside the church doing nothing, according to local news site cleveland.com